Empty auditorium for School Safety Forum seen as a good sign

Panel members for the Rappahannock School Safety Forum include, from left to right, county Emergency Services Coordinator Kevin Williams, Social Services Director Jennifer Parker, RCES Principal Ben Temple, RCHS Principal Jimmy Swindler, RCPS Assistant Superintendent Carol Johnson, SRO Mark Currence, Sheriff Connie Compton, and Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley. By John McCaslin

When it comes to the safety of its students and teachers, Rappahannock County Public Schools — with tremendous assistance from the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office — are about as prepared as any educational body can be in this unpredictable day and age.

“Students are reminded to never open the exterior doors to anyone, including staff that they may know,” observed Ben Temple, principal of Rappahannock County Elementary School, “proven by the fact that I knocked repeatedly on the cafeteria door during lunch and the students just looked at me and would not let me in. So I had to walk around the building.”

Said high school Principal Jimmy Swindler: “It’s incredible to me what’s been done here to keep this a safe place, to keep our students safe.”

The two educators shared their observations at last Wednesday evening’s sparsely attended School Safety Forum, its panel members including Temple, Swindler, RCPS Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley, RCPS Assistant Superintendent Carol Johnson, Sheriff Connie Compton, RCSO deputy and RCHS School Resources Officer (SRO) Mark Currence, Emergency Services Coordinator Kevin Williams, and Social Services Director Jennifer Parker.

“Our weather didn’t help with things tonight,” Grimsley remarked of the empty seats, “but also it’s a good sign that people have faith in us and confidence in what we’re doing. We’ve been working really hard over the past couple of years . . .

“Ever since Columbine and [the] Sandy Hook incidents it’s been on the forefront of school leaders’ minds on how to secure schools,” she explained, praising her entire administrative and teaching staff as well as Sheriff Compton and her team for working diligently to alleviate concerns.

The sheriff revealed that she and her deputies actually train inside the schools “when there is no school in session. My people train, we’re training the teachers, we’re training EMS personnel. So that in the event there is an emergency they will have some type of training to fall back on, have some knowledge of what to expect. . . . There are other procedures that have been put into place that we really can’t go into just for security reasons.”

Swindler and Temple took their turns reciting long lists of security measures now in place in both schools, not the least being two SRO’s assigned to each school. And what the SRO’s might not see the cameras will.

“We’ve increased the number and quality of our security cameras to the point where almost every square foot of interior common space and exterior space adjoining our building is captured digitally,” said the RCHS principal.

In addition, there are monthly meetings to fine-tune the schools’ crisis management plan, regular school drills and building security checks, and all exterior and interior doors at both schools have been re-keyed, to name only a few of the extra security measures.

That said, school officials and law enforcement stressed that the students themselves are key to a safe school environment.

“We want to make sure that a level of trust exists between our students and our staff so that our students are not afraid to communicate to us any risk that they hear of, because the reality is they are our ears,” Swindler noted. “They’re going to hear things before we will. We rely on them as our first line of defense.”

Teachers are similarly trained to recognize those students who might be under some kind of personal distress, including from bullying.

“There are often signs and signals that are out there to look for,” said Assistant Superintendent Johnson, “so that we can prevent any major issues from happening.”

Currence, who as the high school’s SRO is similarly on the lookout for students’ well-being, stressed: “My door is always open to students, whether [they’re experiencing] problems at home or in school — I’ve already talked to several this year.”

He also hopes that his daily bonding with the student body will ensure that they come to him with any any additional concerns.

“I hope to be that person,” said the SRO. “If they hear something I want them to say something. The mere presence of [me] being here helps tremendously, I believe.”

Dani Pond, a high school counselor who was seated in the audience, has two children attending the elementary school.

“It pleases me as a mom to see all of this collaboration here, to know that our kids are safe,” Pond praised the panel. “Nothing makes me feel better dropping my children off in the morning than seeing Sheriff Connie there to greet everybody . . . and then when I come here to work I see Mark out there.”

About John McCaslin 417 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.